No Cross, No Christianity?

January 4th, 2011

A close reading of the New Testament brings to the forefront two indisputable claims about the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. The first is that Jesus' demise at the hands of Roman justice, represented theologically in the motto “Christ crucified,” is the means for comprehending the eternal purpose of God as this is known in Israel's Scriptures. The second is that the significance of Jesus' death is woven so tightly into the fabric of God's purpose that we may never exhaust the many ways of articulating its meaning for our salvation. It is therefore ironic, and not a little distressing, that the crucifixion of Jesus seems so little discussed and even less understood in today's congregations. I want to reflect on these two claims in order to press the question, How can the cross of Christ be good news?

No Cross, No Christianity

In spite of the certainty with which, according to Acts, early Christian missionaries proclaimed the necessity of the Messiah's suffering (for example, Acts 3:18; 17:3; 26:23), the side-by-side placement of these two words, “Messiah” and “suffering,” presented Jesus' followers with a conundrum of mammoth proportions. Athanasius (c. AD 296-373) found in Isaiah 53 plain testimony to the suffering and death of the Messiah for the salvation of all, but he had the benefit of hindsight, as well as some 300 years of tradition on the interpretation of the Scriptures. Isaiah 53 speaks of the suffering of the Servant of Yahweh, but never of the Messiah, so perhaps we should not be surprised that Jesus' own disciples were slow to embrace this view of things.

Among the Gospels, Luke's report is the most embarrassing for the disciples in this regard. Having heard Jesus predict his own betrayal, his followers “did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying” (Luke 9:45). Similarly, on the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and his companion found in Jesus' crucifixion a flat contradiction to their hopes that Jesus would redeem Israel (Luke 24:19-21). Indeed, it is only after Jesus has “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:45) that the disciples were able to see that the crucifixion and resurrection of the Messiah were nothing less than the actualization of the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets.

It is not that what we Christians call the Old Testament self-evidently points to the cross of Christ. If this were so, we could hardly explain the obtuseness of Jesus' own inner circle; moreover, we would expect to find what is in fact altogether missing—namely, testimony from the Judaism of Jesus' day anticipating the suffering of the Messiah. It is rather that the cross and resurrection of the Messiah provide the lens by which to make sense of the purpose of God as this is narrated in the Old Testament. Clearly, Israel's Scriptures can be read in other ways. The Pharisees had their way, just as the Samaritans did, as did the Sadducees or the Qumran sectarians, and each way of reading the Scriptures led to its own way of understanding God's will and to a distinctive way of embodying God's will in community. In the context of competing interpretations of the same Scriptures, then, Luke's point is that the only Christian way to read the Old Testament Scriptures is to see in them a story leading up to and beyond the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To put it differently, the story of God's purpose, from the Old Testament forward, cannot be narrated faithfully without showing how its plot line passed through (and could never bypass) the cross of Christ.

How is this possible? How does Jesus' death reveal as well as serve the purpose of God? The Gospels and Acts show how Jesus' death and resurrection place the spotlight on particular emphases in Israel's Scriptures. In our reading of the Old Testament, we might fail to notice such motifs as the inevitable rejection and death of God's spokespersons (for example, Neh 9:26; Jer 2:30; 26:20-23), a motif that reached proverbial status in Jesus' day (see Mark 6:4). We might bypass the persistent view that, rather than rescue people from suffering, God saves people through suffering—a pattern found in the stories of Joseph and Daniel, for example, and in the Psalms of the Suffering Righteous. In our reading of Israel's Scriptures, we might be tempted to overlook such texts in favor of others, such as those that promise destruction of our enemies and our own rise to power. Doing so, we would find ourselves keeping company with Jesus' disciples who, in their obtuseness, held onto such Old Testament threads. But this kept them from understanding Jesus and his mission. They needed to reread their Scriptures in ways that took seriously how the cross casts its shadow backward over the whole of Israel's story.

The death of the Messiah provides the hermeneutical lens for a theological reading of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture. Of the many strands of meaning that might be traced or reading strategies that might be applied in our engagement with the Old Testament, particularly Christian readings of Israel's Scriptures accord privilege to those that find their pivot-point in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In short, the cross teaches us how to read the Bible.

Christ Died “for Us”

“Atonement” derives from the combination “at + one + ment” in Middle English, but now refers more broadly to the doctrinal affirmation of “Christ's death for us.” In speaking of the atoning significance of the cross, Paul's letters employ two formulas, which themselves represent widespread and early Christian thought. The first presents the “giving up” of Jesus for the salvation of humankind, either as an act of God (“who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us,” Rom 8:32) or as an act of self-giving (“the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age,” Gal 1:4). The second formula takes the form of a slogan, “Christ died for our sins” or Christ died for us” (for example, 1 Cor 15:3; 1 Thess 5:10). Moving beyond these stereotypical expressions, Paul, and with him other New Testament writers, seems never to tire of generating and communicating fresh ways of making sense of the saving importance of the cross of Christ. Taken together, these images congregate around five spheres of everyday life in the ancient Roman world:

  • the court of law (for example, “justification”),

  • the world of commerce (for example, “redemption”),

  • the battleground (for example, “triumph over evil”),

  • worship (for example, “sacrifice”), and

  • interpersonal relationships (for example, “reconciliation”).

And these images are typically worked out theologically through contemplation on Israel's own history.

For example, ransom, a famous atonement image found in Mark 10:45, immediately brings to mind the Roman slave trade, where “ransom” referred to the price paid for the release of a slave. “Ransom” also has a deep significance in Israel's own past, however, where we learn that God “ransomed” Israel from bondage in Egypt. This is important, first, because it reminds us that the salvation that comes through Jesus is a divine act of liberation whereby God forms a people in covenant relationship with himself, but also because God “ransomed” Israel not by “paying someone off” but by delivering them from slavery (see Exod 6:6; 16:13). When later reflection led Christian theologians into speculation about the death of Jesus as the price God had to pay to buy us back from the devil, or as the price required to appease an angry God (and thus, in a sense, “to buy God off”), those theologians had failed to locate the story of Jesus in the larger narrative of Israel. As a whole, the writers of the New Testament concerned themselves with inducting their audiences into the narrative world of Israel as this is written in the Old Testament, and this shapes their views of the atonement.

The story of God's purpose, from the Old Testament forward, cannot be narrated faithfully without showing how its plot line passed through (and could never bypass) the cross of Christ.

Across the centuries that followed, theologians developed numerous models for expressing the saving significance of Jesus' death. Even though the message of salvation is for all people, we need multiple images or models in order to broadcast that message. No interpretation of the atonement can be regarded as the only authentic one, both because it is impossible for any one metaphor to exhaust the significance of the crucifixion of Jesus and because every model of atonement is to some degree bound to its own particular history. This was true already in the New Testament, which itself evidences multiple images of the atonement, and is also revealed in the history of the church.

The ecumenical councils that define classical orthodoxy for us, which produced the great creeds of the Christian church, never selected one interpretation of the saving significance of the cross as definitive. Instead, we find multiple models, including three “classical” theories of the atonement:

  • Christ the Conqueror, which framed reflection on the cross and resurrection in terms of cosmic conflict, within which Jesus' death spells victory over sin and the powers of evil, including the devil (Irenaeus, c. AD 130 - c. 200);

  • Satisfaction, which understands the cross as “satisfying” the debt owed to God by a sinful humanity (Anselm, AD 1033-1109); and

  • Moral Influence, which views Jesus' life and death as a demonstration of God's love capable of moving humans to repentance and love of God and neighbor (Abelard, AD 1079-1142).

Christians have developed these models further, and added others. For example, the biblical understanding of salvation as “illumination” is clearly on a trajectory with Abelard's model of moral influence. This model continues today, deftly represented in language about “conversion of the imagination"—that is, the power of the cross to effect a transformation of the often invisible spectacles through which we perceive and construct a unified sense of ourselves, our interactions with God and others, and, indeed, with the cosmos.

We have reached a troubling conclusion: folks who are unhappy with the prevailing model of the atonement tend not to talk at all about the saving significance of the cross.

Most notably, the satisfaction model has been transformed into the well-known model of penal substitutionary atonement. In developing his understanding of the atonement, Anselm understood God as dishonored, but the model of penal substitution understands God as angry, a wrathful deity requiring appeasement. This leads to a metamorphosis of the satisfaction theory, whereby we are to understand that Christ bears the punishment of God against human sin (rather than pays a debt humans owe to God). The model of penal substitutionary atonement is so pervasive in American Christianity that many Christians may wonder whether the saving significance of Jesus' death can be understood in any other way. This is because we have failed to drink deeply from the wells of our own tradition, however.

Where's the Cross?

As a sequel to our book, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts (2000), Mark Baker and I have attempted to collect sermons for another work, Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross. Our plan was to provide the church with dynamic and engaging images that communicate in powerful and clear ways the saving message of the cross, in terms that make sense contextually and speak profoundly to a variety of audiences. We wanted to stimulate preachers to practice the craft of theologian-in-residence as they struggle with and proclaim fresh and faithful images of the mystery of Jesus' saving death. After talking to scores of preachers and reviewing as many sermons, we have reached a troubling conclusion: folks who are unhappy with the prevailing model of the atonement tend not to talk at all about the saving significance of the cross.

Indeed, our experience earlier this year, when Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ was breaking box-office records, was that pressing questions of meaning simply went unanswered. The most basic was this: What purpose did Jesus' suffering and death serve? How could a people whose God is revealed in the cross not have an answer to this question? How could a people whose understanding of the whole of Scripture turns on the cross of Christ falter at this point?

Here is the challenge before us: to communicate in word and deed the atoning message of the cross, and to do so in ways that are faithful to the witness of Scripture and that can be heard as good news in our worlds. Perhaps no challenge will require more from us in terms of our critical engagement with the world around us and our breathing deeply the air of our own history as this is narrated in Scripture and worked out in the life of the church.


Joel B. Green is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Fuller Theological Seminary and author of numerous books, including the most recent, Reading Scripture as Wesleyans. This article first appeared in Circuit Rider magazine.  

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